By Poly Pantelides
CONSCRIPTS in the National Guard (NG) are considered a high-risk group susceptible to substance abuse, lawmakers were told during a House defence committee meeting yesterday to discuss introducing narcotics tests in the army.
Lawmakers started discussing a bill amid concerns that an increasing number of youths, aged 18 to 20, were drug users. Defence Minister Fotis Fotiou said back in April that about 10 per cent of NG recruits were users of ‘soft drugs’ such as cannabis.
However, lawmakers were told that the results of an anti-drugs survey to verify actual numbers was still pending, and were warned that no safe figures could be derived from population-wide surveys because the sample numbers were too small.
For example, a 2012 survey of 5,500 people across the general population only questioned 28 NG recruits, and showed that 1.3 per cent of them had used cannabis at least once. From the 999 drugs addicts who were referred to detox centres last year as part of government rehabilitation programmes, around 50 were NG recruits, 48 of whom were referred for the first time, said the Anti-Drugs Council’s Stelios Sergides, who is also a spokesman for the police’s drugs squad (YKAN).
What is known is that youths aged 18-20 are considered ‘high risk,’ said the Anti-Drugs Council’s Soula Ioannou. “And we face a phenomenon where all of them are gathered in the army, which can constitute a high risk. But it could also serve as a prevention method,” she added. National Guard service is obligatory among the male Cypriot population, and young men are normally required to serve in the army after completing secondary education.
Ruling party DISY’s Rikkos Mappourides, one of the signatories of a bill to introduce narcotics tests for recruits on a random sample basis, said the National Guard was liable to inherit problems from people already using drugs when they join the army. The point of introducing random tests was not to punish anyone, he said. “What matters is prevention.”
“We don’t want to see for example, a soldier who tried a hashish cigarette over the weekend to be dragged to court,” he said.
Cabinet decided in April this year to authorise the National Guard to screen for drug use among candidate army officers and special forces candidates, the defence ministry’s permanent secretary said.
Christos Malikides said a procedure had been defined alongside with the NG chief, and two random sample tests have already taken place, all coming back negative.
The NG health services and the Anti-Drugs Council had drawn up a signed a memorandum of cooperation to help prevent substance abuse in the army. The defence ministry wants to expand that framework, which is monitored by psychologists and allows for detox treatment for known users.
Lawmakers and the defence ministry have agreed to return to the matter in the near-future to draw up a unified approach.
So far, a July 31 National Guard narcotics test among 156 officer candidates (20 per cent of those who had applied for officer positions) came up with no positive results. A September 17 test screening of 25 per cent, or 75, of the special force candidates also failed to show any positive results, the National Guard Health Services’ Christos Kyprianou said. All candidates for the army’s special forces or for an officer position now need to sign a form consenting to sample narcotics tests, which the NG believes serves as a prevention method. But Kyprianou added experts believe prevention should start earlier, targeting 14-year-olds.